What Reason Can't Do

In N. Athanassoulis & S. Vice (eds.), Morality and the Good Life. Palgrave MacMillan (2008)
The aim of this paper to analyse the central argument of Cottingham’s (1998) Philosophy and the Good Life, and to strengthen and develop it against misinterpretation and objection. Cottingham’s argument is an objection to ‘ratiocentrism’, the view that the good life can be understood in terms of and attained by reason and strength of will. The objection begins from a proper understanding of akrasia, or weakness of will, but its focus, and the focus of this paper, is the relation between reason and the passions in the good life. Akrasia serves to illustrate ratiocentrism’s misunderstanding of this relation and of the nature of the passions themselves. In § I, I outline and clarify the objection. In § II, I present and provisionally elaborate on Cottingham’s diagnosis of what a corrected understanding of the passions makes necessary for the good life, viz. the rediscovery and reclamation of the source of our passions, our childhood past. In § III, I discuss whether ratiocentrism could accept and absorb the critique as developed so far. Cottingham (1998: 162) is aware that his claim, with its emphasis on self-knowledge, could be reinterpreted by ratiocentrism as no more than the need for reason to work with a different source of information regarding the passions in order to master them. I briefly present three further objections to show why this is a mistake. In § IV, I argue that Cottingham’s diagnosis is not quite right, and I seek to emphasise aspects of self-discovery that I believe Cottingham overlooks or underplays. What is needed is a set of interrelated dispositions, viz. acceptance, vulnerability, courage, and compassion; these can be inculcated and sustained by the journey Cottingham defends, but it is the dispositions, rather than the journey, that are properly considered a necessary part of the good life.
Keywords Emotion  Akrasia  Psychoanalysis
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